A report, ordered by ministers, which will be presented to vice-chancellors next week, suggests that all students should reach national standards in literacy, numeracy and general knowledge in order to graduate. A core of knowledge believed to be vital to each subject area could also be laid down to ensure a degree is of equal value in different universities.
The paper from the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC), a government advisory body to which all universities must subscribe, says even academics would not claim standards are comparable at present. There are differences both within subjects and between institutions, it says.
It is bound to cause controversy at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' conference in Belfast next week and will be fiercely resisted by many institutions.
The report, which was commissioned in 1992, will be published after weeks of speculation about whether the expansion of the universities has led to falling standards. In 1979 just one 18-year-old in eight went into higher education but now the figure is almost one in three.
Some officials have suggested that universities could be faced with a choice between reforming themselves and having reform imposed upon them. The council was asked to take action on standards by John Patten when he was Secretary of State for Education, but its planned reforms are not expected to be complete for at least five years.
It plans to study the idea of setting basic standards for each degree subject area after grouping courses into broad bands. Students might be told in advance what skills they could hope to gain from a courses and whether institutions aimed to give them an academic or a vocational education.
Universities could also be asked to define what level a student should reach to attain a first, a 2:1 or a 2:2 degree. The report says that "ambiguous" titles often awarded to those who fail to get honours, such as "pass" "ordinary," "general" and "unclassified" degrees, could be abolished.
It suggests that the growth of modular degrees has highlighted the problem of differing standards between courses and universities. The courses, which allow students to build up credits at their own pace, are difficult to evaluate properly, it adds. There should be a clear minimum standard set down for each module as well as a definition of where the pass mark for a degree should lie.
If the proposals are accepted by the vice-chancellors they will be sent to Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
Bryan Davies, Labour's higher education spokesman, welcomed its proposals. "It sounds encouraging that universities recognise that we do need to maintain quality and to give assurances to the wider world on British degrees," he said.Reuse content